This weekend I had a surreal experience featuring two episodes of polar oppositeness in quality, yet both instructive as to the nature of modern Guyana.
It was a joy to spend time in rural Guyana, visiting my Aunt, her kids and grandkids –cousins I did not know I had. They live in a village called La Jalousie, which is adjacent to my “ancestral” village of Windsor Forest; and indeed, there’s a good chance that half the people in both villages are distant relatives of mine.
(In fact, the taxi driver who took me back to my hotel turned out to be a childhood friend of my younger cousin Vayko, whose family I stayed with during my summer spent in the village 27 years ago… the taxi driver is likely a distant relation, and is now no more the annoying pre-teen I recall from way back then, but a grown man with grown children. Time marches on, and families bifurcate and fragment.)
The village is not the neolithic collection of agrarian huts that I recall (quite fondly) from my stay there so many years ago. My aunt’s house has cable TV, a land line telephone, running water and a flush toilet, all of which are dramatic developments of the last few years. My memories are of having to navigate the muddy fields by flashlight at night, desperately in search of the outdoor latrine.
Despite its Western comforts, there is no mistaking the Third World nature of these environs. Garbage collection is a recent arrival, and each home is now charged the equivalent of US$1 for weekly pickup of trash, even in the most remote areas. Despite this, litter is a saddening reality that evokes a tragicomic emotional response when viewed against the backdrop of sylvan ancientness. For those unaccustomed to the rural Third World, take it from me that this scene is common the world throughout: the young boy leading a handful of goats to the creek, tripping over used Coke bottles and styrofoam cups.
And indeed, it is the animal life that reminds you of where you are. A Spiderman cartoon might be on the TV, and the phone might be ringing, and my PDA might be recording all of it in a triumph of 21st Century technological living. But when a goat wanders into the house, or when a cow pokes its head through the window and moos so loudly that the table shakes, there is no mistaking where you are.
And despite the creep of Western modernity into these village environs, there is joyfully the lingering of rural childhood purity. The kids still prefer to play cricket in the field, rather than watch cartoons on TV. And when the foreign visitor (me) arrives, I and my stories are more fascinating than any bloated figure on TV. Indeed, it was a singular joy to perform magic tricks for the village kids, well into the evening, interrupted every so often by the arrival of a curious goat, frog, chicken or cow.
It was telling that my tales and photos of Rupinuni, a land within Guyana itself, drew the most gasps. For a North American foreigner, a trip to Rupinuni, which lies on the Brazilian border, is a casual flight of a couple of hours. For a typical agrarian local, it is an impossibly expensive journey into a fabled land. It is proper to be reminded of this telling economic disparity between those of the North and those of the South. The latter are sufficiently disenfrachised that even their own country is kept from them by the tyranny of economics.
Lounging in hammocks in a rural village, as the stars climb into the sky, is a special experience that brought back magnificent memories of my youth. One of the joys of being from a rural Indo-Caribbean clan is this sense of family that is reinforced on a nightly basis as the children play about the adults’ feet as stories, jokes and histories are exchanged. So it was with some melancholy that I slipped into a taxi and back into the city.
And this is where the second half of our story transpires. For on the drive back, we passed a fresh accident scene: a woman, dead on the road, her head crushed and her brains splayed across the highway. Below is a photo nabbed from a local newspaper. I took a more graphic photo at the scene, but Deonandia is not Rotten.com or Ogrish.com, so even I have some limits.
It seems that she was a beggar woman, mother of 2, out drinking with her husband. They fought, he struck her, she stumbled onto the road and was crushed by a truck. This is not an uncommon sequence of events here. There is a visceral sadness about it all, one that permeates so much of life here.
Sometimes the bliss of my time with family, particularly the village children, softens my appraisal of this place. But Guyana is more than a land of rugged landscapes and pastoral simplicity. It’s a place of very hard work. (When I explained to my aunt what I do for a living, she replied approvingly and accurately, “Oh, so you don’t work very hard then.”) It’s a place of daily violent crime, crushing poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, and heartbreaking tragedy seemingly occurring on an hourly basis.
Those who endure life in the villages navigate avenues of poverty and insecurity. Yes, it is tempting to long for the familial comforts of village life; but such a life comes at a price. It’s a price I’m not sure I’m willing to pay.